Su’eddie Vershima Agema’s In Memory And The Call Of Waters Is Poignant And Gut-Wrenching — Jerry Chiemeke

With the current state of the world, it could be difficult to process all the things that make the news, and it’s even more arduous for those living in the Global South, where an event halfway around the world affects the price of yams in your hometown.

One can become numb from all the goings-on, and for many, it gets harder to provide any sort of meaningful insight. But not S. Su’eddie Vershima Agema, winner of the 2014 Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Prize for Poetry.

For the Tiv poet, it is pertinent to tell the story of a world that is getting older, wearier, and colder.

He has a lot to ponder, and it is with an urgency that he reels out the verses in his most recent work Memory and the Call of Waters, published by Sevhage in 2021.

Agema begins his quest for answers by calling out the condescension of European colonialists and missionaries in “Before Learning a New Normal.” For him, the lines between these two categories of settlers are blurred and considering the role that they both played in the demonisation and gradual erosion of African culture and traditional religion, his argument is valid. He sets out to proselytise, and he does that fairly well.

“How many know the tale of my soul/burned by superiors who poked away religion from my hold/as forced thrusts gave me the right of passage…”

The perennial collapse of the national grid is a running joke in Nigeria, and in “Let there be light”, Agema comments on the nation’s poor state of electricity supply with dry hilarity: he struggles to have poetry dance with satire in these lines, but he manages to make a catchy impression, nonetheless.

In the vibrant and poignant “Memory’s hold on Mother’s Day,” he chronicles the timeline of a mother-son relationship fraught with necessary absences, late nights, health scares and aching bones.

“Áondo, if you live above the clouds/as you do in our hearts/best author writing our tales/please rid her of every torment/send memory to help give her more pleasurable moments…”

The sudden death of friends is the dominant conversation in the poems “Finding the road to your ends” and “Transition”, the latter of which has Agema chant in the lines of “the earth’s hunger is eternal/its stomach swells with our loved ones.”

The departed Nigerian-Canadian satirist Pius Adesanmi is eulogised in “When traffic lights go wrong”, a poem that relies on the masterly use of religious allusions to spotlight the belief in the afterlife and examine the theory of finding closure (or the futility thereof.) Death is a visitor that leaves jarred hearts in its wake, and these verses encapsulate this reality in fine detail.

“Death harvests 157 names from a hidden manifest/tribes blame Anubis, Eshu, and the devil/a few pray for grace and ask that the heavens keep Hades away/people watch screens and refresh tabs for news of a miracle…while some sigh, certain hearts beat a definite bye/biting fingers without hope/listening as empty sympathies ring…”

Jungle justice is frowned upon in “The story of our streets today”, a short, succinct piece that provides an accurate sketch of how people’s lives interconnect, even when this happens in ways that they wouldn’t have liked. There is no fanciful balladry going on, just good old interrogative verse.

“Today, a man was caught/who stole a generator and a television/he was the thief of someone else’s vision…today, a mob roasted a man/with a generator and television/while his mother died waiting to get money/for drugs the chemist valued at a hundred bucks.”

Migration is often accompanied by a huge cloak of loneliness, and Agema reflects on this as he yearns for familiar touch in “When walks turn to dares after Greek legends.” Sometimes, the loneliness combines with pressure to usher in the black dog, and he acknowledges the mental health crisis that sometimes plagues immigrants as he mulls over a Nigerian student’s suicide on Brighton’s grounds in the poem “The vanity of the scholar’s dream”, conjuring images of Joy Lobo hanging from a dormitory ceiling in the 2009 Bollywood dramedy Three Idiots: the pressure from a knotted rope on the windpipe pales in comparison to the mental pressure that youngsters face in pursuit of academic excellence, whether in a fictionalized Indian college, or on the corridors of one of England’s hallowed institutions.

Is Depression a scourge that creatives have been cursed with, or do people have a recent knack for romanticizing mental illnesses? Agema muses on these things in “Perdition and Grace” where he recalls the sadness of Ernest Hemingway and Sylvia Plath: between pellets from a favourite shotgun and carbon monoxide from an oven, he dwells on the prospects of suicide, which become a little too attractive as the clouds get darker. In a country like Nigeria grappling with increasing rates of self-harm, these lines would be easy to connect to.

“I answer the call of lost souls/walking on in the drought of your presence/that draws me to River Benue’s bed/where many have slept to damnation.”

He wades into darker waters with “The stars are orphans tonight”, gritting his teeth as he mulls over the horrors that have been experienced by kidnapped (Nigerian) schoolgirls over the past decade.

“Mud shines in the hearts/of men whose balls swing as their pendulums beat time/forcing their way through sealed paths/their panting sighs bring cries/laughs crowning beats accursed in deepening thrusts…rods are poked deeper again into torn midpoints/blood gushing as hands go limp/never aspiring to stretch beyond raped ambitions…”

It’s hard to miss the ruefulness in “Losing a Flower’, a haunting poem where Agema paints a gory picture of the perils of abducted children in the words “their waters doused her innocence/as crooked pestles crushed childish bliss/in thrusts that tore her soul.” Clergymen murdered by marauding bandits are mourned in “Mbalom, Benue and the lambs”, and through the verses in “There’s no hiding place down here”, he laments about the pitiable state of insecurity in the Middle Belt: the latter poem would leave readers mulling over the state of despondency and anguish that currently haunts a sub-region that has been volatile for decades, amidst poetically vivid descriptions of gore and agony.

“The sun sinks/and we desert care as we wear frowns/wondering where time has kept father/we search the anthills, hives and snake holes/behind a cloud approaching dawn, we find our father on a pole/a head without a body…”

In the title track of their 2011 album Vice Verses, Switchfoot lead vocalist Jon Foreman tries in vain to clutch onto hope as he croons “Where is God in the earthquake? Where is God in the genocide? / Where are you in my broken heart/where everything seems to fall apart?” It is with similar despair that Agema approaches the poems in this 97-page collection, where he struggles to make sense of the bombings in Kyiv, the carnage in Jos, the church massacre in Owo, the rising cost of gas in London, and the violation of teenage girls in Yauri. There is a significant dose of darkness in these pages, but this bard from the Benue has no intentions to serve up any sort of escapism; he has a lot of questions to ask, and he won’t gloss over the horror bedevilling the place(s) he calls home.

Quizzical, probing, and sometimes cynical (in the manner of Frank Ocean’s 2016 LP Blond), this book runs with the feel of a slow-burning furnace that ultimately engulfs after a patient build-up.

Like a town crier whose vocal pitch gradually rises by the minute, Memory and the Call of Waters gets off to a cautious start – the conversations in this collection begin with “softer” themes and pedestrian rhyme before the poem segues into darker territory – but explodes before long, with the attendant fury that inept leaders, silent gods and insensitive governments deserve. We dream of ways to understand Agema’s pain, but we can absorb the earnestness and beauty of his penmanship.


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